Past Returns to Haunt German Finance Minister

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

London ( - Germany's foreign minister, Joschka Fischer, faces a grilling Wednesday from opposition lawmakers, some of whom have called for his resignation over his militant past.

Many Germans have been stunned by film footage of Fischer, wearing a crash-helmet and gloves and raising a fist above a policeman lying on the ground during a radical leftist protest in Frankfurt in 1973.

Fischer admitted to Stern magazine that he had in the past been "partly subject to the fascination of revolutionary violence."

The foreign minister, a member of the Green Party in the ruling coalition, gave evidence Tuesday in a trial of Hans-Joachim Klein, a former left-wing terrorist who participated with "Carlos the Jackal" Sanchez in the 1975 hostage-taking of OPEC ministers in Vienna.

Klein, a fellow anarchist "street-fighter" with Fischer, is accused of subsequently taking the path to outright terrorism. He faces charges of three murders that occurred during the Vienna raid.

Although Klein is on trial, it is Fischer's background that has fascinated Germany and upset many, particularly those who see him as trying to justify his youthful militancy.

He described to the court how he and his first wife were beaten by policy during a 1968 protest. "As I was lying on the ground something altered in my head. I asked myself: 'Why must you always let yourself be hit?' We reached a point where we said we must defend ourselves."

Fischer made it clear he never supported terrorism. "There was a massive dispute about the armed struggle, seizing weapons, killing. It had nothing to do with freedom, it would produce disaster and it did produce disaster."

While Judge Heinrich Gehrke had to interrupt prosecutors on several occasions to remind them that Klein, not Fischer, was on trial, the foreign minister is unlikely to get an easy ride in parliament Wednesday.

"Fischer's integrity is more than just slightly damaged because of his past," Andreas Schmidt, a senior conservative, was quoted as telling the Rheinische Post newspaper.

Frankfurter Rundschau quoted Guenther Beckstein, interior minister of the German federal state of Bavaria, as saying it was "intolerable that Germany has a former perpetrator of violence as foreign minister, a man who kicked out at a policeman who was lying defenseless on the ground."

Beckstein said Germany's image had suffered, and called on Fischer to quit.

Laurenz Meyer, general-secretary of the opposition conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) said he was "horrified" by the images of Fischer attacking a policeman.

He said the past of leading Green Party politicians should be "reappraised."

It was "odd" for someone to dismiss left-wing violence as a juvenile misdemeanor while at the same time calling for firm action against right-wing violence, Meyer said.

Another leading opposition lawmaker, Peter Ramsauer, accused Fischer of "depravity" while a trade union representing police officers said the foreign minister should apologize for his violent behavior against policemen, and noted Fischer had not voiced "distinct ... regret" for his past actions.

Fischer has reacted calmly to calls for his resignation. Surveys suggest that a large majority of German voters think he should stay in office.

The 52-year-old foreign minister is also vice-chancellor in Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder's coalition government.

The spectacular attack on the OPEC summit in December 1975 saw five terrorists led by Carlos seize 11 oil ministers and some 60 other hostages, after killing two security guards and a summit delegate.

The terrorists received a large, undisclosed sum in ransom from Iran and Saudi Arabia. They were allowed to leave Austria, and flew to Algeria where they freed their hostages.

Klein two years later publicly rejected terrorism. He was arrested in France in 1998 and returned to Germany to face trial.

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow